DR Congo on the rise, eye World Cup spot under Florent Ibenge
Looking back into World Cup history, Zaire's appearance at the 1974 finals in West Germany is frequently the subject of ridicule. Their 9-0 thrashing by Yugoslavia in Gelsenkirchen is widely regarded as a day of shame for the African game and the rest of the performance by the central Africans left little positive impression. The Leopards were the first black African country to compete on the game's ultimate stage but that breakthrough had a negative consequence for the perception of football on the continent. It took years to re-establish their status, achieved when Cameroon reached the last eight in Italy in 1990.
Zaire were the powerhouse of the African scene in the 1970s, dominating at both club and country level. But as the country's fortunes dwindled under the leadership of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, with corruption rampant, so too the sporting infrastructure began to fall apart and their achievements dried up.
For the size and potential of the giant central African country, returns were markedly poor. A civil war eventually toppled Mobutu and brought about the Democratic Republic of Congo: a new name, a new flag and other new symbols but not much change to the footballing mediocrity. But even as the political and social situation in the country remains tenuous, with incumbent president Joseph Kabila seeking to hold onto power beyond his mandate, the Congolese are back in with a real chance at World Cup qualification.
This opportunity comes on the back of the recent reemergence of TP Mazembe Englebert as one of the leading clubs on the continent. Fuelled by the indulgence of Moise Katumbi, governor of the mineral rich Katanga province, they bought the best local players, imported expensive foreign stars and won the African Champions League in 2009, 2010 and 2015. Even better was their achievement of a run to the Club World Cup final in 2010, during which they beat Brazil's Internacional for a berth in the decider in Abu Dhabi.
Yet Mazembe's fortunes might be on the decline again as Katumbi (who wants to challenge Kabila for the presidency) has gone into political exile and the funding of the club is likely to dwindle dramatically even though they just won the African Confederation Cup.
However, there is hope as AS Vita Club, from the capital Kinshasa, reached the 2014 Champions League final and their coach Florent Ibenge is now running the national team at the same time.
Two successive victories at the start of the group phase of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign sets the nation up for a possible spot in Russia. They have a favourable draw in Group A, too, where they will face Guinea, Libya and Tunisia. DR Congo won handsomely at home to Libya in October and followed that up with away success in Guinea last month; their next two qualifiers, both against Tunisia (who also won their first two group games), will likely settle the outcome as only the group winners advance.
Ibenge had no previous experience at the top level of the African game but having spent much of his career in Belgium, he brings an intriguing combination of European organisation with a solid understanding of the sport's vagaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ibenge has made it his business to strengthen his side from the growing diaspora in Europe and last year spooked the Belgians with his overtures to players like Michy Batshuayi, Luis Pedro Cavanda, Christian Kabasele, Paul-Jose Mpeko and Youri Tielemans. His interest even led to an article suggesting he was pinching players away from the Belgian national coach Marc Wilmots. In the end, only Mpeko heeded Ibenge's call.
"It is logical that if a Belgian-Congolese player gets called up for Belgium, he chooses for them. They play at a much higher level. But there is a whole generation of players who might not get the chance [of playing international football]. Why should we not then pick them?" Ibenge asked.
It helps that there are also players from France now in the squad. Captain Youssouf Mulumbu, Neeskens Kebano, Remi Mulumba and Fabrice Nsakala all played in the French U21 side. Kebano, who moved to Fulham from Racing Genk in June, is the kingpin of the Congolese selection with his midfield craft and guile. Jordan Botaka (Leeds United) is a former Dutch junior international and ex-England U21 striker Benik Afobe is expected to debut at the upcoming African Nations Cup for the Leopards.
It is an eclectic collection of players, granted, but they come with the heady promise of fulfilling a long-held desire to return to the World Cup -- and hopefully make up for the tarnished image of 1974.
Mark Gleeson covers African football for ESPN FC.